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French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin should use his February 14-15 visit to Moscow to signal France’s alarm over Russia’s rollback on civil and political freedoms, Human Rights Watch said today. In particular, De Villepin should highlight concern about the new Russian law on nongovernmental organizations and the increasingly hostile environment for Russia’s civil society.

“De Villepin should make clear that France will not remain silent as the Russian government dismantles civil society,” said Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director for Human Rights Watch. “He should emphasize that this issue is of global concern and that it will remain at the top of the Franco-Russian agenda.”

On January 10, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed legislation that introduced new government restrictions on nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and expanded the grounds for closing or denying registration to NGOs. The law grants government officials an unprecedented level of discretion in deciding what projects or even parts of projects can be considered detrimental to Russia’s national interests. It gives registration officials broad power to close the offices of any foreign NGO that implements a project that does not have the aim of “defending the constitutional system, morals, public health, rights and lawful interest of other people, guaranteeing the defense capacity and security of the state.”

Human Rights Watch called on France to take the lead in pursuing a policy toward Russia that prioritizes respect for human rights, including freedom of association, which is critical for an accountable government and a democratic society. Russia’s new NGO law is not in conformity with standards set by the Council of Europe, which limit government supervision of NGOs to balance sheets and annual reports. Russia assumes a six-month chairmanship of Council of Europe in May 2006.

“Europe should speak with one voice on human rights and civic freedoms in Russia and it should use that voice to protect civil society organizations,” said Cartner. “It should call on Russia to repeal the burdensome requirements in the new law.”

Statements by high-level Russian officials and other government actions over the past two years have fed the hostile atmosphere for NGOs in Russia, giving rise to concerns that the new NGO law does not merely impose benign administrative regulations but will be used to interfere with their work. In a speech on February 7 to the Federal Security Service (FSB, the successor to the KGB), President Putin called on the FSB to “protect society from any attempts by foreign states to use [NGOs] for interfering in Russia’s internal affairs.” This speech came several weeks after a program broadcast by a state-owned Russian television station attempted to link Russian NGOs to a spy scandal involving the British embassy.

The Russian government has also taken legal action against several NGOs that expose government abuses. On February 3, a court in Nizhny Novgorod convicted Stanislav Dmitrievsky, executive director of the Russian-Chechen Friendship Society and editor of the organization’s newspaper Pravozashchita, on politically motivated charges of “inciting racial hatred,” giving him a two-year suspended sentence and four years’ probation. The charges stem from the publication in Pravozashchita of two statements by Chechen rebel leaders.

At the end of January, the Russian Ministry of Justice filed a lawsuit to liquidate the Russian Research Center on Human Rights, an umbrella organization of a dozen Russian human rights groups, including the Moscow Helsinki Group and the Union of Soldiers Mothers Committees. The Ministry of Justice claims that the group had failed to file reports of its activities for the past five years, a claim disputed by the group. Also in late January, a Moscow arbitration court ruled against the Russian PEN Center, an NGO that advocates for freedom of expression, holding that it owed 2 million rubles in property taxes; the authorities froze its account following the court ruling.

The NGO law is the Kremlin’s latest assault on independent institutions that can provide a check on the government’s power. Human Rights Watch said that since coming to office in 2000, Putin has systematically weakened or taken control over key institutions of government and civil society. The Russian government gradually took editorial control over all television and radio outlets that reach a national audience, leaving no major public forum for open debate in Russia. The government has also worked to produce a compliant Duma (parliament), a judiciary that increasingly lacks independence, and regional governors beholden to the Kremlin.

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